In The Midst Of Wildfire Chaos, Families Try To Plan Funerals For Their Loved Ones

Nov 20, 2018
Originally published on November 20, 2018 8:01 pm
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Heavy rains are expected in northern California this week and could mean relief from the Camp Fire. The rain could help extinguish some of the wildfire and improve air quality, which would make it easier for the firefighters and volunteers who are working in the areas' hard-hit communities.

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The rain could also mean danger for residents who've lost their homes and are living in tents. State and federal officials are warning people about the possibility of mudslides if bursts of intense rain hit the burned slopes of the Sierra Nevada foothills.

CORNISH: The death toll from the Camp Fire has climbed to 79 people. The number of the missing has dropped as people are found, though it's still high - nearly 700. And in the midst of this chaos, families are trying to plan funerals for their loved ones. NPR's Leila Fadel sent this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Eric Smith has a list in the leather-bound portfolio he carries around with him. It's the list of the families waiting to bury their loved ones when the bodies are released from the coroner's office. He manages the Scheer Memorial Chapel in Oroville and the Rose Chapel Mortuary and Crematory in neighboring Paradise, Calif., which miraculously still stands.

ERIC SMITH: We don't know how long it'll be. I mean, there'll be still people on the missing list probably that will never be found. And people are calling, trying to find out. People want to know. They want to know if a person's been identified, if we know if they've been identified.

FADEL: On this day, the funeral home fielded four calls from families of the dead and the presumed dead. Right now, it's a waiting game, waiting for the remains to be identified, to be released, to be buried.

SMITH: A couple families know. They've been told that there's not much recovered, but there has been an identification made. So there's a lot of people that won't have much to bury at all, unfortunately.

FADEL: Smith speaks about the arrangements clinically. He doesn't falter. He doesn't cry. This, he says, is what he and his staff have to do for the families.

SMITH: We're just doing our job helping people. You know, it's our job to help them and not be down ourselves. We have to get them through it first. And we'll deal with ourselves later, really.

FADEL: It's almost as an aside that Smith mentions his own home in Paradise burned down.

SMITH: I know I lost my home. I'm one of the ones that lost their home. Everybody I know pretty much lost their homes.

FADEL: He's living in an RV for now. Smith was at work when the fire burned through Paradise. His wife made a harrowing escape. They left the cat behind.

SMITH: A friend of mine's son is a CDF fireman. And he went to my house, and he saw my cat. My cat survived for seven days. I finally got back up there, and I got him. I got him out. So - but - yeah, it chokes me up a little bit. But it's all, you know, because of the firemen.

FADEL: It's a rare moment of tears for Smith, thinking about the first responders helping his community, the dead, the destruction, and his pet, Little Buddy, alone in the ashes. But he quickly regains his composure. His pain, his staff's pain, he says, is beside the point for now. First, they've got to get the families of the bereaved squared away.

SMITH: They don't have anybody else to turn to. So we have to be strong for those people. And that's Rose Chapel, Scheer Memorial Chapel, for - that's what we do. That's why we're here.

FADEL: Smith expects the list he carries with him to grow. He's never dealt with this level of death before. But he said he hopes to help the families find closure and then turn to the business of rebuilding the town of Paradise, where he's lived for more than 30 years. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Chico, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.